One of the most rewarding things about my current role is that my CEO and I meet twice a month for an exchange. We discuss priorities and brainstorm ideas for furthering the company’s data and analytics programs. We touch on any sources of tension in the organization (example: how our master data management (MDM) initiative is being received). I work with him on ideas for communicating and explaining our data strategy, so it’s as broadly understood as possible, especially to less technical users. We also talk about big rocks.

What are big rocks? In Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, big rocks are major initiatives that will have a positive impact on the organization. Here are three examples your organization might be pursuing:

  • growing market share from competitors in specific solution areas
  • automating repetitive tasks to maximize productivity
  • improving your Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) profile 

These are big initiatives, and therefore big rocks. They come first. Covey describes this idea by writing that you can’t add big rocks to the strategy “jar” if you’ve already filled it with pebbles, sand and water. For example, if you spend two years working on your strategic “pebbles” rather than rewiring the data nervous system of your company with data lakes, data visualization tools, and MDM (definitely a big rock), you haven’t built a firm foundation to help your company transform its performance. 

A true north for priorities

Big rocks also appeal to me because, like my CEO conversations, they help me to prioritize. They serve as an Enterprise True North that guides me. And they represent an enterprise agreement of sorts of what really matters. 

In a recent conversation, we discussed a new company that we had acquired. Integrating it into the organization looked straightforward on the surface, but our CEO made it clear that he sees this as a big rock. We talked through the positive implications of adding the company’s offerings to our solutions as well as the potential threat of cannibalizing other parts of our business by doing so. 

Thanks to that conversation, and seeing the new company as a big rock, I have begun to translate related efforts into a workstream in my organization. What will be the data that the core business needs to succeed? How does this overlap with the new company’s technology and outputs? And how can our implementation strategy focus on the data that Fitch and the new businesses are using most frequently? With a big rock focus, I see effective inroads I can make with our current and the newly acquired company.

Get on the agenda

If you’re a senior data leader, my advice is that you get on your CEO’s agenda and start exchanging ideas with a regular cadence. This is especially important if you are an externally hired CDO, as the CEO context and pulse of the organization’s market and clients is paramount. Talk about recruiting and day-to-day strategy but don’t forget to make time for big rocks. What are the CEO’s? What are yours? Where do they need to overlap more closely? How can they build on each other? 

In essence, this is how we set up our strategy for the CDO office. We looked at three or four big rock initiatives and said, “In order for data and our environment to achieve greatness for each of those initiatives, here's what needs to be done. Here are the barriers and problems that we’re solving for, because we can't address them today. And here are the people, budget and processes we need to make all that happen."

That's how we lined up our strategic data plan. I encourage you to give this approach a try. Just don’t forget to clarify your big rocks.